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Any cancer diagnosis brings with it a lot of fear, and a lot of questions. For many, a diagnosis is unfamiliar, and people may resort to trusting information they may have heard or read. Unfortunately, some of this information regarding cancer and treatment may be inaccurate or incomplete.
I treat women who have been diagnosed with non-metastatic breast cancer. In my conversations with newly diagnosed patients, I try to address any fears or assumptions surrounding breast cancer and provide accurate information so people can be informed about their condition and what is happening in their bodies.
Here are six common myths related to breast cancer I often hear and my explanations on whether or not the research and science backs them up:
- Myth: Chemotherapy is a form of poison. Why would I put it in my body?Chemotherapy works in such a way that it circulates throughout the bloodstream and can be very effective at killing cancer cells. When necessary as part of a patient’s treatment, chemotherapy can play a crucial role in survival. Through increased research and development of treatments based on precision medicine, more and more cancer patients are able to receive proper medical treatments with fewer side effects.
That being said, chemotherapy treatment involves administering a host of cancer-fighting drugs into the system, which can take a toll on the body and have unpleasant side effects. Some are temporary, such as hair loss, and others that can be more dangerous, such as cardiac toxicity which can affect a woman’s ongoing heart health. The recommendations to deliver chemotherapy to a breast cancer patient must be considered very seriously and thoughtfully for these reasons.
- Myth: If I have surgery, exposing the disease to the air make the cancer spread.
Short answer: This myth is absolutely false. This is an extremely dangerous myth that continues to paralyze some patients with fear of pursuing diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.
Surgery is often a crucial part of breast cancer treatment. Breast cancers that are left untreated will continue to grow and spread throughout the body, making them much more difficult to treat, and ultimately resulting in higher death rates.
- Myth: Sugar feeds cancer. Does this mean I have too much sugar in my diet and need to avoid all sugar?
All cells — including cancer cells — require nutrients such as sugar in order to survive, but the microscopic requirement for sugar at the cancer cellular level is not directly linked to the sugar content of what we eat and drink.
While there isn’t a direct link between sugar and cancer, maintaining a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, lean protein and whole grains has been shown to help lower risk of numerous diseases, including cancer. During cancer treatment, a healthy diet and regular exercise are both associated with better outcomes. It’s also associated with lowering your risk of developing cancer overall.
- Myth: Stress (especially after a traumatic event like losing a loved one or going through a divorce) causes breast cancer.
The answer to this is complicated, as there is growing research surrounding the effects of stress on the body.
It was previously believed that there was no link between stress and cancer, and that a new cancer diagnosis following some major upheaval was purely coincidental. More recently, however, evidence shows that some of the chemicals released in response to stress may be associated with cancer growth.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life, and people even experience stress when going through positive experiences, such as moving to a new home or having a baby. The key is to properly manage your stress so that it doesn’t start to negatively affect your well-being.
- Myth: I go in for regular mammograms. Why did I develop breast cancer?Mammograms are extremely important for early detection of cancer. The earlier the cancer is found, the easier it is to treat the cancer and the more positive outcomes patients have.
However, mammograms do not prevent breast cancer. I continue to see breast cancer patients who are shocked by their diagnosis because they thought they were "doing everything right."
While it’s crucial for women to follow breast cancer screening guidelines, there is no guaranteed way to prevent cancer. Staying active, eating healthy, not smoking (or quitting if you do), performing self-checks and visiting with your doctor regularly are the best ways to minimize your chances — and, if you do develop cancer, a diagnosis at its earliest possible stage will help you beat the disease most effectively.
- Myth: Hormones cause cancer. Does this mean I have too much estrogen?
Not exactly. Breast cancer is a largely hormone-driven disease, and this is why it is so much more common in women than men.
After menopause, women can have excess hormones in the form of hormone pills or by estrogen that is naturally produced in fat cells of the body could affect the breasts. More research is being done to determine the link between hormones and the development of breast cancer. At this time, though, physicians are not able to perform any routine blood test for hormone levels that can tell whether a woman has breast cancer or if she is at risk for developing it in the future.
Dr. Lisa Newman is a surgical oncologist, specializing in treating breast cancer treatment and seeing patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.
This story is provided and presented by our sponsor Henry Ford Health System.
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